Still from "Casablanca" (1942). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
"Here's looking at you, kid..." "Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time." "You played it for her, you can play it for me!"
These are, of course, just a few of the highly quotable lines from Casablanca, and what’s more, they’re a few of the lines that double as nostalgic nods to the old-fashioned medium called film, or celluloid. You see, not everyone knows or understands that we are living during the quiet denouement of a revolution, in which digital technology has supplanted film as the chosen medium for screening movies. With its accelerated rate of decay, its scratches and pops multiplying with each viewing, and its unwieldy weight and size, film, it was decided long ago, could be improved upon.
During the past 10 years or so, digital technology—specifically, hard drives provided by major movie distributors that link up with computers and digital projectors—has gradually moved film to the bin of history. There are plenty of arguments on both sides. Digital is clearer, brighter, and cheaper. Film has a special “soft” presentation that can’t be duplicated, it’s not made of pixels, and it’s the medium that, for more than 100 years, has been our cinematic existence, so it probably behooves us to keep a few 35 mm projectors around.
A private screening of Casablanca in 35 mm at an undisclosed local venue was the occasion for pondering the death of film, recently. When the news came that Landmark Theatres would be removing all 35 mm projectors from the Tivoli Theatre (and all but one from the Plaza Frontenac Cinema) as of next week, Casablanca, a trip back into film’s golden age, seemed that much more nostalgic.
The love-story-within-a-love story in the classic film is, of course, the bit where we see Rick and Ilsa canoodling through Paris, a breath ahead of the Nazi invasion that would topple the city in 1940 (a scant two years before Casablanca hit the screen). Theirs is the crazy love that makes no sense—they agree to tell one another not a whit about their pasts or who they really are—but during wartime, madness is the only thing that makes sense, yes? Ilsa stands up Rick at the train station and, bereft, he must flee the Germans without his true love. A year passes. The defeated Rick is running a nightclub popular with the sleazebag crowd in Casablanca when suddenly, she walks in. “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine,” Rick will soon find himself moaning. Love walks out, love walks in. Nostalgia is killing him afresh.
“A lot of people argue that digital is better, but I don’t agree,” says Pete Timmerman, an adjunct professor of film studies at Webster University. Some might call him a nostalgic sentimentalist, but the man has a point.
“The argument is that digital prints don’t get scratched and dinged-up later in the run,” he said. “With a film print, the concern is that if you see it a month into the run, the print will have some damage.
“Distributors and studios and others are also happier because it’s a hell of a lot cheaper. It costs a lot more to make a film print than a digital copy. The difference in cost between manufacturing thousands of film reels of The Dark Knight Returns and thousands of digital copies is gigantic. Prints also take up much more physical space than the digital technology, and they weigh a lot more, and cost a lot more to ship.
“And audiences are close to being brainwashed that digital is better—people hear the word ‘digital’ and they agree that automatically it must be better. And, honestly, in the five or 10 years they’ve been doing digital, it’s gotten much, much better.”
“But,” he continues, “there’s just something special about a movie shot on film and shown on film. It’s not made of pixels. To be really frank, I’ll take a beaten-up film print over a digital print anytime—I find it [the former] charming that way. But the thing is, most films aren’t shot on film these days. They’re shot with any number of cheaper video media, and because they were never on film to begin with, they’re not really losing much, in my opinion, when they get transferred for digital projection.”
Another of Casablanca’s many quotable lines is uttered when Ilsa and Rick rekindle their romance for the briefest of interludes in Morocco, at a time when the Nazis have just begun to squeeze the freedom out of the titular port city. “Kiss me,” she says to him. “Kiss me as if it were the last time.” And he does. And the thing is, it is. Of course it is.
Some cinemas and films will not survive the shift to digital technology. It’s just too expensive for many smaller, art-house, and drive-in cinemas to convert to, or to pay to continue renting actual celluloid films, which become ever more rare and expensive.
One heartening piece of news for our burg: the Skyview Drive-In apparently will survive. The area’s final remaining drive-in will convert to digital on both screens while the drive-in is dark over the winter, said Skyview owner Steve Bloomer.
“We’re working on financing,” Bloomer says. “It’s not cheap, but we have to do it if we want to stay in business. Disney has already announced there will be no more 35 mm prints after the first of the year, and I’m sure the other studios are going to follow suit.”
Bloomer is excited about the big change. “Every drive-in that I know that has installed digital has a brighter, clearer picture—it’s like watching a High-Def TV screen.”
The final opportunity for 35-mm types to get their fix will be the annual horror-themed “Slashfest” series of screenings, the evenings of October 5, 6, and 7, featuring The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight each night.
After that, as for the Skyview’s 1949 projector, Bloomer says he’s “thinking about putting it on display at the concessions stand, like an old dinosaur.”
Brian Ross, owner of the 90-year-old independent Hi-Pointe Theatre, says his cinema converted to digital a year-and-a-half ago or so, but they still use several 35 mm projectors for prints on occasion.
“I had to learn to roll with it [digital] because that’s the way it’s going to be,” he says. “Any purist in this industry hates to see film go. Running the projectors is interactive; being involved in the film as it’s shown is fun. But we’ve been told that they’re going to start eliminating prints, and it’s a different world now. Hopefully it won’t affect the smaller distributors, and they’ll be able to keep up with digital trends. The smaller cinema has to buy expensive equipment—hopefully they can stay open. On the exhibitors’ end, you just don’t have an option.”
As you might imagine, the powerful Des Peres-based Wehrenberg Theatres, the oldest family-operated cinema chain in the country, went 100 percent digital some time ago.
As far as the movies themselves, some will make it down the Nile, and some will not. Basically, if a film is released on Blu-ray, it can be projected digitally. If not, there’s a good chance it will not be available for digital projection. The medium is in the midst of a sea change as we speak, and it’s hard to say, exactly, but look at it this way—some films never made it to Beta, VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, whatever. Each time technology changes, more films—some of them amazing, fantastic works of art—get left behind.
And this latest change is the most ground-churning yet. Movies are one of those mediums that, like automobiles, have been running on the same basic operating system practically from the get-go. “Cinema has been around for something like 115 years, and it’s been on film for like 102 of those,” says Timmerman. A wide-sweeping system upgrade was inevitable. There are simply too many old movies that are not of financial interest to the relevant billionaires, and will be left behind in old media. As the big studios’ hegemony squeezes out the little guy, will yesterday’s more obscure films they be saved and trafficked online, like mp3s? Will legal or illegal trade rule the market? We just don’t know yet.
Cinema St. Louis Executive Director Cliff Froehlich sees an even bigger problem. “Digital storage—they haven’t cracked it,” he says. “Celluloid was something you could always access. It’s a physical object, and the projector is a device that can be manipulated mechanically. How do you make sure there’s access in the long term to a medium that’s changing this fast? Remember five-inch floppy disks? Three-inch floppy discs? LaserDiscs? Any information on those is virtually inaccessible now. That’s a major, major issue that archives are grappling with right now. Same thing with music now—an old-time 78 or 33, you can always build a machine to play that. It’s mechanical, not digital. How do you make sure MP3s are not lost to the ages? If digital film becomes the new standard, how will those films be stored and accessed?”
Froehlich is less concerned about digital film limiting the scope of contemporary film, whether you’re talking quantity or quality. “For many years now, 35 mm has been relegated to the back corner,” he said. “The St. Louis International Film Festival has relied on digital projections for years.The switchover to digital has not been a huge issue for us because that’s been the trend in independent cinema, anyway. Thirty-five mm is very expensive, and most indies can’t afford it.”
As to the vaunted quality of real film, Froehlich isn’t buying it.
“Lots of film programmers go on at length about the wondrousness and richness and beauty of 35 mm that digital just can’t match,” he says. “I get that there are elements that can’t be matched now, but those things are changing rapidly, the textural quality and the imagery. And what people are nostalgic about is something that they rarely see, anyway—a reel projection from a pristine 35 mm print. Every time it gets screened, every time it gets stored, damage is being done. Very, very rarely does anyone get an opportunity to see a pristine print. I think that seeing a film projected from a digital format, it’s a more pristine picture and cleaner than anything you get from a 35. I would rather watch a film from a Blu- ray than almost any other format available.”
Many of these developments, though they may be a fait accompli, are pondered by influential filmmakers in a brand new documentary produced by Keanu Reeves, Side by Side. Noted directors like David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, and Christopher Nolan weigh in on the changing medium.
One last time, back to Casablanca:
Sam starts to play the wistful “As Time Goes By” on the piano at Rick’s bar. The lyrics remind us that rivers ebb and flow, fashions change, but always, the “fundamental things apply.”
Ilsa’s face is radiant in soft-focus black and white. Everyone is smoking cigarettes, virtually nonstop. The 35 mm film print itself is dotted with frequent blemishes and has the roughened edges of age. These things, we now see, are not fundamental, but fleeting.
The climax of the film is considered perhaps the greatest single moment in cinematic history. Sorry, but here comes a spoiler: the guy doesn’t get the girl. Ilsa flies off to Lisbon and freedom with her Nazi-fighting husband; their relationship isn’t exactly torrid. Rick does the noble thing, and willingly takes the shortest straw so the couple can escape, leaving himself alone yet again. That empty, bittersweet feeling rings on after Rick and the ethically challenged Capt. Renault lope off into the sunset.
Not once, but twice, Rick and Ilsa’s love was too good to last. Like the poet says, nothing gold can stay.
The final frames of the print flutter through the projector. Cryptic, illegible writing flies past, then an empty white square for a second or two before the quiet and the dark. Everyone has left the cinema now.
It's a good time to be nostalgic. Someone should be, don't you think?
It's like Rick tells Ilsa: "We'll always have Paris."